Experiencing negative emotions like sadness, anger, fear is a universal and unavoidable part of being alive. However, there are times when these feelings become overwhelming, making it harder to feel enthusiastic, confident, and kind toward yourself or others. Many people who engage in substance abuse do so in an attempt to get rid of these hard feelings and make life seem happier and easier to manage.
However, these mood-lifting effects are temporary, and can bring additional problems when they fade away. Sobriety can offer opportunities to learn how to really deal with hard feelings, rather than ignoring them or pushing them down further. When hard feelings come up, here are some tools you can use to not let them get in the way of thriving in recovery.
Focus on Now
When unpleasant, frustrating, or disappointing things happen, an emotional reaction is completely normal, and a part of being human. It can even lead to positive change. For example, feeling a small amount of guilt if you were inconsiderate to a friend can help you think about ways to reconcile or be kinder in the future.
The problem comes when the brain blows things out of proportion. Regret about the past, anxiety about the future, or any other hard feeling can get stuck in our minds, as we ruminate unwanted thoughts over and over, until they take over and become bigger than they really are. That single event where you wish you could do over again gets linked with other times where you were embarrassed or imperfect, until you feel helpless against a flood of hard feelings. Single events get universalized in statements like “I’ll always…” or “I’ll never…”
Bringing you attention to the present moment gets your brain out of endless regret, bringing feelings down to a manageable level. Focusing your attention on breath or the environment around you, talking through stressful situations with supportive friends, and making time for relaxation and taking care of yourself can be effective ways to stop your mind from endlessly running through hard emotions again and again.
Make time for the positive
The human brain has evolved a survival tactic called the “negativity bias,” that gives more attention to potential threats than to times of safety. In times when survival is threatened, it makes sense to avoid all dangers possible. If you are unsure of whether something in your path is a snake or a stick, it’s smart to assume it’s a dangerous snake and avoid it.
This negativity bias becomes less helpful when it causes you to focus only on what seems to cause fear, sadness, or anger, at the expense of what is positive, safe, or encouraging in your surroundings. Most people notice that their minds do not spend as much time focusing on all the times when they feel successful and competent as single time where they made a mistake.
For this reason, positive experiences, encouragements, and things to be grateful for sometimes need an extra boost to get the mental attention they deserve. Each day, take time to do something enjoyable and spend time savoring and fully appreciating the experience. At the end of each day, you can reflect on things that went well. Even in the midst of negative emotions, you can still try to focus on good elements of your life. These practices can strengthen your ability to notice the good, as well as the difficult feelings and experiences in your life.
RAIN Your Way to Peace
Negative emotions need to be paid attention to. Endlessly distracting yourself to try to keep unpleasant thoughts or feelings away is exhausting, and only makes them come back stronger than ever. Thus, it is important to find time to express and reflect upon any hard feeling you encounter.
The acronym RAIN is commonly given to a thought exercise that can be a helpful way to reflect upon a negative emotion in a way that helps you understand it’s true meaning, and avoid feeling overwhelmed. The four steps are
Recognition – Pay attention what you are feeling, and give a name to your experience.
Acknowledgement – For a moment, simple let yourself feel that feeling, to rest in it.
Investigation – Pay attention to what you are feeling, and what underlying causes may be at play
Non-identification– Put the feeling in it’s place, by recognizing that this one experience is not everything you are, and that you can do things to help yourself feel better and be in control.
Negative emotions can be a difficult thing to deal with, but they do not have to control you. With these steps, you can discover ways to handle your emotions and learn from them, but also exercise power over them. It might take extended practice, and the help of a therapist and supportive community, but you can learn to manage your emotions and make them part of a full and thriving life.